Phil Hughes: The right move at the right timeBy
Do you think Phil Hughes should have gotten the call? The debate sweeps through Yankeeland, as two opposing sides butt heads on the issue. On one side are the “babyers.” They want to see him “learn” in the minors and keep his innings limited, thus reducing the risk of injury. On the other side are the “throwers.” They believe that pitchers should pitch, and that a guy like Phil Hughes has little, if anything, left to learn in the minors. Obviously, the three of us are “throwers.” Let’s start this argument from the top.
Igawa’s performance last night helps illustrate why calling up Phil Hughes is the smart move. If the Yankees really just needed a pitcher or two for a couple of spot starts in place of Moose and Pavano, fine. You expect them back soon (Mussina at least), and the rest of your rotation is fine. However, this is obviously not the case. Pavano might not be back for a very long time, and even when/if he does return, there is even less a chance that he helps the team. He needs to build endurance, and you don’t do that sitting on the DL with an elbow strain (which is what King Felix has, by the way).
Then you have Igawa, in whom I have a dwindling amount of faith. I did point out that he had pitched better in each of his starts against progressively better opponents. If that was real progress, he would have fared well against the Devil Rays last night. Alas, he had no control and continued to leave the ball up in the zone. At a time when the bullpen desperately needed a rest, Igawa did not deliver. And I’m not convinced that we’re going to see him pitch well in more than one out of six or seven outings. That won’t even cut it for a No. 5 starter.
So that’s 2/5 of the Opening Day rotation in question. If you’re looking to replace just a No. 5 starter, Karstens or Rasner might be able to fill in temporarily. However, the Yanks are replacing two No. 5 starters, and inserting both Karstens and Rasner will probably have damning results (it is, by the way, excruciating to sit through a Darrell Rasner start).
So what do you do in that situation? You insert your next best pitcher, which is Phil Hughes. Cashman may say that he’ll be up as long as Mussina is on the shelf, but I think we can distance ourselves from his PR-speak. The rotation stinks. It will probably get better with Wang now back and Moose about a week away. But then that leaves you with just three quality starters — surely not enough to overcome Boston. By adding Hughes to the mix, you now have a fourth quality starter. Add Clemens, and you have the best rotation in baseball, without question.
There is still the question of the increase in innings he would incur by pitching the rest of the season at the major league level. This is an issue the Yankees can work around. First off, an innings limit is not a way to measure how much work a pitcher is doing. Hell, not even a straight pitch count can tell you everything. If Hughes is rolling and not letting many men on, he should easily be able to last 100 pitches without any kind of damage. He’ll be in lower stress situations, taxing his arm less than if he was always pitching with men on. These situations need to be taken into account when judging any pitcher’s pitch count.
If his counts start to get up there, skipping him is an option. It happens all the time when off-days change the pitching schedule. This would work especially well if Clemens joins the fray. Yeah, you don’t want him to go two turns without a start, but if you’re seriously intent on limiting his innings at the major league level, that’s how you do it.
My only fear is that the Yankees will continue to impose in-game limits on Hughes. While you don’t want guys tossing 120 pitches a start, limiting him to 80 would be a huge mistake; counterproductive, even. If you need to set limits to his total amount of work, that’s one thing (which, once again, can be achieved by skipping his starts when the schedule allows). I still don’t agree with it, but if it’s the Yankees M.O., that’s the way it will be. But limiting him in-game is only going to frustrate him.
Let him pitch.
Before I wrap up, I do want to address an issue. People have mentioned that they don’t want Hughes to suffer the same fate as other young pitchers who have been called up: Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Francisco Liriano, Jon Papelbon, Felix Hernandez. I just don’t see any similarities between Hughes and any of these guys.
Prior was part of the Dusty Baker Abuse Machine. We know Hughes will never be stretched to those limits — I don’t think any Yankees pitcher would ever be subject to that. Kerry Wood was part of the same machine, though he incurred plenty of arm damage in high school due to his piss poor mechanics. Liriano has a nasty injury history, which is why he was sent to Minnesota in the Pierzynski trade. Papelbon is also a unique case. His shoulder couldn’t handle the rigors of bullpen work last season. This does not relate to Hughes at all. Finally, Felix also has poor mechanics. He is also a genetic freak who is probably bound for TJ surgery at some point in the future. I definitely can’t see comparing him to Hughes.
For a more accurate comp, think Matt Cain. True, he had more innings under his belt at age 20. But he came up at a similar age to Hughes – - Cain’s first full season was his age 21 season, which this is for Hughes. Also, for the record, Hughes’s minor league numbers are vastly superior to Cain’s. They’re also head and shoulders above another high-profile righty.
Is Hughes guaranteed instant success? Far from it. As he’s demonstrated, it takes a start or two for him to acclimate himself to a new level of competition. If he can do the same at the major league level, we may be looking at the best pitcher on our staff — this year and for many to come.
Disclaimer: Since we’ve had problems like this in the past, I’m going to clearly state that we are NOT reporting that Felix will undergo Tommy John surgery. As of this writing, he is simply on the DL with an elbow strain (though I thought ligaments were sprained and muscles were strained). Once again, we are not starting a rumor about this. It’s speculation on my part. Thank you.